Dr. Adam Green: Higher education leads to higher wages

In a recent editorial, the Daily Mail argued against increasing the minimum wage. Editors noted that while it’s a tough marketplace for workers with little education or experience, the bigger question is how to expand access to jobs with higher earnings.

Arguing whether the minimum wage should be increased is not within my realm of expertise. However, I believe the editors are right to point out that opportunities for low-skilled workers are increasingly limited and that growing our economy revolves around bigger issues.

In my mind, we cannot talk about income equality or economic growth without addressing higher education.

Increasing the number of individuals entering and succeeding in postsecondary programs is crucial to ensuring their personal success and that of our communities. The demands of our workforce dictate that it is no longer acceptable to talk about higher education as an option for some students. Rather, it is an imperative for all.

Certificate and trade, two-year degree, and four-year degree programs are all viable college options. We need more workers earning these credentials to sustain, diversify, and grow our economy.

Projections from Georgetown University indicate that by 2020, 51 percent of all jobs in West Virginia will require at minimum a two-year degree. Currently, only 26 percent of West Virginians have earned an associate’s degree or higher.

The Southern Governors’ Association estimates that middle skills jobs – or jobs requiring some college but less than a four-year degree – account for 54 percent of the state’s labor market. Only 45 percent of our workers have that training.

Closing these gaps will expand opportunities for citizens and generate economic gains for the state. According to 2009 data from the Census Bureau, earning a four-year degree yielded, on average, a nearly 50 percent increase in wages as compared to having a high school diploma.

A report from the Hamilton Project estimated that the benefits of a bachelor’s degree are equivalent to an investment returning 15.2 percent annually – more than double the average return on stock market investments since 1950.

College graduates also experience more stable employment. In 2010, the unemployment rate among younger West Virginia workers (ages 25-34) was nearly 12 percent for those with a high school diploma, while only 4.5 percent for those with a two-year degree and 5.5 percent for those with a four-year degree. Last month’s national labor report mirrored this trend. According to the Wall Street Journal, four-year college graduates gained 754,000 jobs in November. Jobs for those with a high school diploma fell by 284,000.

From a statewide perspective, higher education fuels economic growth and diversification. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields educate students to fill – and create – higher-paying jobs. University research spurs startup businesses, like Protea Biosciences, a spinoff of West Virginia University’s research labs, and Vandalia Research, a product of Marshall University. And studies have found that humanities programs develop students’ critical thinking, and creativity skill sets -essential abilities for today’s workplace.

In pursuit of these goals, West Virginia is making strides in helping its citizens pursue and complete college. The Higher Education Policy Commission has joined forces with the Council for Community and Technical College Education, the W.Va. Department of Education, and the Department of Education and the Arts to provide intensive college and career counseling services through the College Foundation of West Virginia initiative (CFWV.com).

We’ve also made college more affordable. Our public colleges offer some of the most inexpensive degree programs in the nation.

In addition, parents’ out-of-pocket spending for college declined by more than $3,000 from 2010-2013. This is due to our institutions’ commitment to cost efficiency and to statewide awareness and support efforts, such as CFWV, that connect students to financial aid. Since these outreach efforts began, grants and scholarships have grown among families as a resource to pay for college – up from 23 percent in 2010 to 30 percent in 2013.

These achievements are encouraging, but there is much to be done. To ensure income equality and economic competitiveness, West Virginia – and the U.S. – must keep higher education among our top priorities. It starts with keeping it in the conversation.

This commentary appeared in the December 13, 2013 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.